MELODY NIXON interviews HELEN BENEDICT
Helen Benedict is the author of seven novels and five works of nonfiction. A professor of journalism at Columbia University, Benedict spends her time between New York City and upstate New York, where her latest novel, Wolf Season, is set—though the characters’ lives encompass Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the US. Wolf Seasonwas selected as a 2018 Great Group Read by the Women’s National Book Association.
As the seasons changed from fall to winter, Melody Nixon spoke with Benedict about her newest book, the “effects of war on the human heart,” Benedict’s path to social justice, and the way forward with the crisis of tolerance.
Melody Nixon (MN): Wolf Season is set in upstate New York, and it renders that place vivid through details of the natural landscape, the climate, and the small town and countryside in which characters reside. As I understand it, you live part-time upstate. To what extent did your day-to-day experiences of place inform the novel?
Helen Benedict (HB): I wrote the descriptions in Wolf Season from both observation and imagination, because although the area is real, the towns in which my characters live are not. I recreated the woods from the walks I take and the hurricane from Hurricane Irene, which I rode out there in some terror. But Wolf Season has a surrealistic, slightly mythical quality to it, especially when narrated through Rin and the children’s eyes, and so there I turned to imagination and language to enhance and willfully alter reality.
MN: You grew up in the UK, and you live now in New York City. Would you describe yourself as a “New York City writer,” a “British writer,” an “American writer,” or something else?
One of the advantages of having lived in various corners of the world (I spent a few young years on islands in the Indian Ocean, too) is that I don’t identify with one nationality or place in particular. Also, I’m really a hybrid – my parents are American, and yet I was born and raised in England, so have a totally different accent than them. But I consider it an advantage for a writer to be free of pride and defensiveness about one place or another. Writers should stand outside of the myopia of nationalism, patriotism and as many other “isms” as possible to wield a critical and impartial eye—at least, ideally. I don’t mean that it’s not wonderful to know a place and people so well you can render them beautifully in writing; I am talking about the sentimentality and blindness that can come with pride of place.
MN: Wolf Season brings together characters from both “sides” of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq War veteran and the Iraqi refugee must interact and find commonality. In this way, the novel brings to mind Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, which deals with racism across racialized lines; the perspectives of both a female, Black nurse and a Neo-Nazi, white man are captured, and done so very effectively; the stakes are obviously high for a white American writer to be writing these characters. How risky did it feel to you to narrate the story through the eyes of both Rin, a rage-filled, white American veteran, and Naema, an Iraqi refugee and doctor who faces small-town bigotry and physical danger?
HB: The challenges of writing from the points of view of an Iraqi, a war veteran or a military wife are the same as those all we writers face when we create characters who are not ourselves living lives that are not our own, and those are how to do it authentically, well, and honestly. When writing a character who embodies attributes that are culturally and historically laden – by race, religion, culture or class, for example – a privileged white writer obviously has to be extra aware of her own biases, blind spots and ignorance, and address them openly and fully. For Wolf Season, I tried to do that by interviewing war veterans and Iraqi refugees over many years, by very careful research, by thinking deeply about my characters humanity, and by asking among my sources to read parts of the novel and help me get it right.
But in the end, writing about people different from ourselves is only what fiction writers have always done, unless we are unwaveringly chained to autobiography. We cross time, genders, races, cultures, countries, planets – everything. One of the greatest joys of writing and reading fiction is being freed to fly out of our own skins, lives, cultures and, well—selves—to become someone else. This is the magic of how fiction plants the seeds of compassion and empathy; and how it combats prejudice, bigotry and other myopias.
MN: You chose to focus the novel on three nuanced, complex female characters. For me, the absence of male protagonists—so much a part of our literary canon—was deeply refreshing (and definitely passes the Bechdel test!). How deliberate was your choice to center the experiences of women in relation to war?
HB: War has always been seen as a man’s story, dating back to the earliest oral battle ballads from cultures around the world. Yet today, more women and children die in the world’s wars than men. Furthermore, women are in the militaries of many countries now, and fight and die and become wounded just as men do. Yet convention still makes most people reflexively think and talk about soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen as men. I wanted to change that, to stop perpetuating the idea that war is only man’s story, and to recognize that war hurts, victimizes, alters and destroys women, too.
Likewise, women are too often left out of the refugee story, partly because of cultural and language barriers, and partly because of the entrenched sexism of the news industry. I wanted to change that, as well. Women soldiers and refugees have to deal with much higher levels of sexual predation, disrespect, discrimination, persecution and prejudice, rape and assault than men do. Nearly one in three women in the US military is sexually assaulted by a fellow military member, for example, while refugee women are commonly raped by either soldiers, marauders or smugglers. I was meeting with refugees at a camp in Greece this past summer, and one of the volunteer teachers there told me every single woman in her English language class had been raped.
MN: That is horrifying.
You write frequently about such terrors, about unjust acts. Where does your feeling for this subject matter come from? Was there a “moment”—or a series of moments, or a person or group of people, that awakened you to injustice?
HB: I would say I was almost born into a passion for social justice. When I was very tiny—three, five and eight years old—my family lived on Mauritius and then the Seychelles, islands in the Indian Ocean. Both these places were extremely poor colonies at the time, and some of my earliest memories are of seeing starving children with bellies distended by worms, men made grotesque by elephantiasis, and even lepers. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t profoundly saddened by such sights.
Likewise, in London, where I mostly grew up, the city was still full of buildings crushed by bombs when I was a child, and I remember seeing the half-burnt dolls and teddy bears of killed children in the rubble. Or I think I remember it.
When I was 12, I read Jane Eyre, a book that further infected me with a passion for social justice, as did Black Beauty. Whether for girls or horses, I wanted life to be fair! Later, when I was in my teens, my family spent some time in Berkeley, California during the time of Black Power and the Panthers and demonstrations against the Vietnam War. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Soul on Ice and went on marches, and my passion for social justice grew into something more adult and political. [At] college in both the UK and the US, I discovered feminism. I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, among many other seminal works of feminism, firing up my passion for justice more than ever. As an undergraduate, I worked in a prison for girls, where 80 percent of the inmates had been raped by relatives as children, which twelve years later formed the basis for my first novel, A World Like This.
I suppose all this fueled my writing, both in fiction and nonfiction. I am not really interested in fiction that has no bearing on the condition of humanity in one way or another. Life is too short to fiddle while Rome burns.
MN: You’ve written about war in both fiction and nonfiction. What is the difference for you between genres? What does fiction allow you to address and access that nonfiction does not, and vice versa?
HB: When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, I became obsessed by the need to explore the effects of war on the human heart. I began by interviewing dozens of veterans, both women and men, as well as Iraqi refugees who had fled to the United States. Three years of this research led me to write The Lonely Soldier (2009), a nonfiction book about women at war; my play, The Lonely Soldier Monologues (2011), all in the words of women veterans; and dozens of articles.
But even though the veterans and refugees I met were willing to tell me their stories, sometimes, during our interviews, they would fall silent, hands shaking, eyes filling with tears, unable to bear to recount or even think about some of their memories, so painful were they. This moved me profoundly and led me to understand that the true story of what war does to the human heart lies within those very silences; the private, internal world that has always been the territory of fiction.
This led me to write Sand Queen, a novel set in Iraq, and its sequel, Wolf Season, which is about how war affects not only those who are caught up in it but those who love them: the children, parents, and partners. Nonfiction may have a wider audience, and lead more directly to legal or social change, but with fiction, I can go where nonfiction never really can and reflect what I found in the silences.
MN: Your novel The Edge of Eden (2009) takes a clear-eyed look at postcolonial power relations—in particular, sexuality and magic at the nexus of indigenous and colonial cultures. What draws you to the colonial story? And how is your relationship to it complicated by your birthplace?
HB: Having been raised by Americans in England and in British colonies, I learned early to be acutely aware of class, status and colonialism, all of which played out very overtly in the Seychelles, where The Edge of Eden is set, which was still a British colony when I lived there as a girl in 1960. And, I might add, that even though colonialism is cruel, heartless and disastrous, it also has its comic side, as I also tried to show in that novel.
At heart, the colonial story is, of course, about power dynamics, and I have long been interested in the interplay between the powerful and powerless, whether men and women, adults and children, rich and poor, masters and servants, white people and black people, the conquerors and the conquered. But The Edge of Eden is also about something else: a generation of British parents who were evacuees as children during the war and grew up essentially without families or role models of how to be parents. I knew children with parents like that in London, and even as a girl was shocked by their cluelessness.
MN: How did emigrating to the US affect you as a writer?
HB: When I first started writing novels, I had not been in the US for very long and found myself totally insecure about writing about America or Americans. So, my first novel, A World Like This, was set in England back in 1975, not long before I’d left. By my second novel, I was ready to set the story in New York, but felt more kinship with other immigrants than native New Yorkers, so wrote Bad Angel, a novel about Dominicans in my neighborhood around West 107th Street in the bad old 1990s. My third novel, The Sailor’s Wife, was set in Greece, and so on. I’ve always written about people who are outsiders in some way, which may reflect where I stand as a British-American transplant who belongs to neither one place nor another.
MN: You’ve also lived in many countries, and you’ve sought to accurately capture the migrant and refugee experience in writing. Right now, migration, foreignness, xenophobia, are all spotlighted in international public discourse. As you mentioned, you were on the Greek island of Samos this summer, where you witnessed the ongoing refugee crisis. This is a complicated question, but what is the way forward with this crisis, and the burgeoning of intolerance?
HB: This is so hard to answer, as the solution is both obvious and seemingly impossible: rich countries, especially the US, need to open borders to refugees and give them a chance to work and live in dignity. The world’s refugee crisis today was mostly caused by our very own Iraq War, which, along with globalism, has destabilized the Middle East, opened the door to fanatical groups like ISIS, and spread fear, Islamophobia and xenophobia all over Europe and the US, causing country after country to swing to the right and slam doors in the face of refugees, who are overwhelmingly victims of war. So, what can we do? Vote for politicians who will promote humanitarian policies, donate to volunteer organizations, work with refugees and migrants ourselves, and overcome our own prejudices and misconceptions about Muslims, Syrians, Iraqis, Mexicans, or whomever else, by reading and thinking.
MN: What do we need now that is lacking?
HB: Compassion, and action.
Helen Benedict’s seventh novel, Wolf Season, is available from Bellevue Literary Press.
Melody Nixon is the Interviews Editor for The Common.
Headshot by Emma O’Connor.